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Art collection Part 1: Thursday, 9 April Palm Springs California Chris Kraus C International Magazine, 2003 My father shows

me the six or seven rare books in his collection. Produced in the late sixteenth and seventeenth century in London, and published by the Cambridge University Press, the books are various editions of the Bible and The Book of Common Prayer. My father celebrates the dawn of secularism of the Elizabethan age. No more Latin, no more mindless following of the Pope, whose authority surpassed the monarchy. In order to become a world power, England needed a state religion it could control. Founded by Henry VIII in 1588, Cambridge University Press was to the Church of England what The Moscow Press was to Lenin's Russia: an institutional propaganda wing that brought new ideologies to the masses. Bound in calf and vellum, with spines strengthened by a set of horizontal struts fashioned from meshed twine and embedded underneath the leather, the books, of course, are very old. The pages have that pungent mildew smell of things left too long in a damp basement. They are whisperthin, and graying at the edge s. Everything falls apart... After four centuries of use and curiosity, the pages have come loose and been collected, reassembled, then sewn back together. The earliest of these books are set in a heavy Saxon gothic typeface. Crude and deliberate. A type that wasn't going anywhere. A type that summons up a world of fear and faith and ignorance, of plagues and herbal cures, seasons, weather, straw mattresses and ox carts. A cosmogeny in which one might actually seek out a Book of Common Prayer: where "common" means not ordinary but collective," and to possess this commonality might lift the individual from the squalor of the village into a consciousness of something larger and more radiant, a nation. World without end, Amen.

There is a fetishism attached to objects in this kind of amateur collecting. A naive experience of substance and the material world. The object forms a link between the collector and its origins. The prairie child holds a conch shell to her ear to hear the ocean roar. There is a tactile thrill, embroidered by imagination. This imagination requires a certain literacy--history is like the ocean--an accumulation of references, dreams and stories unleashed by contact with the object. In this sense, the object's just a trigger to the real collection, which is totally internal... Researching millennial flying saucer cults, I visited the rare book room of the New York Public Library and requested a broadside pamphlet that publicized the sighting of the Divine Virgin Mary by two children in an English midlands village circa 1425. Folded like an accordian, the pamphlet was retrieved from the basement of the library and presented on a tray covered in burgundy crushed velvet. Outside it was 1999 but here inside the high-ceilinged windowless paneled room was proof that once, a band of lunatics roamed the countryside prophesizing salvation through the world's first flying saucer, the DVM. It is written that she will first show herself to children. The missing unnamed Joseph Cornell box plays a similar role in William Gibson's Count Zero. Adrift in hyperspace, the Cornell box is the missing element in Josef Virek's otherwise complete collection. In this most modernist of sci-fi novels, the Cornell box is the ultimate object of desire. It cannot be possessed. It can only be perceived on its own terms-by exiting reality-as-we-know-it, and moving into hyperspace, which is irrevocable, like dying. Prior to the publication of Count Zero, Gibson did a performance along these lines with the artist Dennis Ashbaugh in New York City at The Kitchen. Simulcast to several other cities, the performance, called Agrippa--A Book of the Dead (1992), consisted of the public reading of a text that had been inscribed onto

a sculptural magnetic disk. Vacuumsealed until the beginning of the performance, the disk was programmed to erase itself upon exposure to the air. Words disappeared as soon as they were spoken. The piece evokes the cave paintings at Lascaux. Visitors to Lascaux are led by guides through multiple chambers of simulated Paleolithic paintings. The "real" paintings, discovered accidentally in a nearby cavern after having been protected from the elements by fallen boulders, were resealed by archeologists. Were the "real" caves to remain unsealed, the paintings that had been preserved for 20,000 years would dissipate within a single lifespan. Collecting, in this primitive form, implies a deep belief in the primacy and mystery of the object. As if the object was a wild thing. As if it had a meaning and a weight that was inherent, primary, that overrode attempts to classify it. As if the object didn't function best as a blank slate waiting to be written on by curatorial practice and art criticism. Clearly, this kind of primitive collecting is totally irrelevant to the object's pre-emptive emptiness, and the infinite exchangeability of meaning in the contemporary art world. When collectors pay $10,000 for a David Korty landscape, they aren't purchasing a pleasant watercolour painting of a night sky wrapped around a hill. Other artists, more naive, have done these paintings more consistently, have maybe done them "better." Rather, what collectors are acquiring is an attitude, a gesture that Korty manifests through his anachronistic choice of subject matter. The real story here is not anything to do with a night sky wrapped around a hill. The real stor y is the fact that Korty, 28, a graduate of the acclaimed UCLA MFA Program, with all conceptualism's reference bank to draw from, would choose to paint a hill at all, much less with watercolour! Whereas modernism believed the artist's life held all the magic keys to reading works of art,

neo-conceptualism has cooled this off and corporatized it. The artist's own biography doesn't matter much at all. What matters is the biography of the institution. In The Collector's Shit Project (1993), Todd Alden invited numerous curators, collectors, and well-known contemporary artists to "donate" samples of their shit. Each specimen would then be canned, signed by the artist, numbered and given a Certificate of Authenticity in a very limited edition (1 of 1). Inspired by the early 90s buzz around Julia Kristeva's writings on abjection, the project was a nod to first-wave conceptualist Piero Manzoni, who'd actually done it first in 1961, with his landmark exhibition Merda d'artista. Displayed in brightlycoloured labelled cans stacked festively, like in a supermarket, the exhibition was Manzoni's public offering of his shit. Oh, we underestimate that generation's rage against the first flush of consumerism--remembering only how it was subsumed by Pop Art's bland and fatuous approval... To say nothing is to hold onto all the cards: first rule taught, implicitly, at art school. Alden's project was remarkably successful. First, as he tells it, lots of people sent him sh it. Those who didn't sent him letters. Second, the exhibition acquired notoriety when it was cancelled by his chosen venue, the Art Warehouse (a storage facility for blue chip art operated by the art moving company, Crozier.) "You cannot," the facility director wrote, "have an exhibition of excrement...." This and other ephemera of the doomed project were eventually exhibited at Art Matters. Alden, himself a graduate of the Whitney Studio Art Program, which in the early 90s led the pack in institutional critique, took abjection very seriously. "My inability to represent the abject was figured through some kind of a semiotic configuration," he told Sylvere Lotringer in an interview, "by presenting it in a can in which excrement is signified through language, and not, through, you know--"

"Shit?" the interviewer countered. We are witnessing a daily life that's so contemptible and trite that pornography becomes the only appropriate rejoinder. Chris Kraus is a fiction writer and art critic living in Los Angeles. Her next book, Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness, is forthcoming from Semiatexte/MIT Press in Spring, 2004.